Birdstrike! United Airlines 747–400 upper deck business class San Francisco to San Francisco

Birdstrike! United Airlines 747–400 upper deck business class San Francisco to San Francisco

I’ve been relatively lucky over the past few months, I know it. All of the traveling that I’ve been doing has been relatively trouble free, and there haven’t been any instances where I’ve found myself completely frustrated with things that just weren’t going my way. Heck, I just spent a long weekend flying around Mexico on low-cost airlines without any problems for crying out loud – and I’m not really sure how I got so lucky. But of course I’m really thankful about it all because travel is a lot less fun when things don’t go as planned!

The downside of completely smooth travel is relatively boring trip reports. As a writer and online marketer, I’m fully aware that drama sells, and if there’s one thing that’s been lacking on my blog recently, it’s drama. Well ladies and gentlemen, all of that is about to change. If you’ve had a hankering to read about flights and travel experiences that go horribly wrong, you’ve come to the right place. This one is good. I mean bad.

Whatever…the point is that there is some drama involved in this trip report, hopefully enough to pull you away from The Real Housewives of Orange County for a few minutes.

San Francisco, CA (SFO) – San Francisco, CA (SFO)
Thursday, October 19, 2017
Aircraft: 747-422
Registration: N180UA
Duration: 1 hour 46 minutes
Seat: 16K (upper deck Polaris business class)

united 747-400 side view
United Airlines 747-400 (N180UA) side view illustration by
sfo-sfo route map
What a mess.

The story begins as I was walking into the international terminal here at SFO just after arriving from San Diego. Walking down that long corridor which leads to the escalators up to the main terminal, I began thinking about starting to get some footage for the video that I had been planning to shoot for this flight.

After all, this was going to be a fairly significant flight for me since it would be my last ever ride on a United Airlines 747, and in the weeks leading up to this flight I had been greatly looking forward to the opportunity to film the experience.

International terminal walkway SFO
This is the walkway leading to the international terminal at SFO. I get the same goosebumps walking through here as I do walking into the Tom Bradley International terminal at LAX.  Lots of epic trips have started from here!

But I just couldn’t do it. The biggest reason was because filming while traveling is very stressful, as I’m usually more focused on figuring out what shot I need for the video instead of actually relaxing and enjoying the experience. It was at that moment, as I was walking down that corridor, that I was torn between documenting the experience on video, or just slowing down for once enjoying the moment of my last ever United 747 ride.

And of course it’s not like I wouldn’t be documenting the experience at all, because I was still planning on taking a lot of pictures and writing up a full report anyway. Just the thought of adding video on top of that was too overwhelming for me at that moment, so I muttered “screw it” to myself and decided just to enjoy the day without stress (ha!). So if you’re wondering why there is no video for this segment, that’s why.

International departures San Francisco international airport
My flight to Seoul seems to be on time. What could possibly go wrong?
International terminal interior San Francisco international Airport
I love the international terminal! So many different flights heading off to all corners of the globe, and I would be on one of them today. Well, two of them actually, but I didn’t know that yet.

The best way to make a busy travel day less stressful is a visit to the lounge. I decided to check out the United Club located near gate G98, which just happened to be the old United Global First Lounge. For some reason or other I was thinking that they would have redesigned it since it was no longer a first class lounge, but such was not the case.

It was exactly the same as it was the last time I was here, so there’s no need to review it again. It’s still a very nice lounge, though it did get quite busy in here about an hour after I arrived. It was much nicer when they only let first class passengers in here, that’s for sure.

United club SFO
Looks exactly the same as it did when it was the Global First lounge!
SANspotter selfie United club sfo
It’s not easy trying to limit food intake while in the lounge, because I know that I’m going to eat like a pig on the plane. At least I didn’t go back for seconds!

The excitement of boarding my last-ever United Airlines 747 was starting to get to me about an hour before the scheduled boarding time, so I left the lounge and walked down to the gate to soak up the ambience. Unfortunately, there was about the same level of ambience in the air as there was for a flight between Iowa city and Tulsa today.

I guess I was expecting to see a lot of other aviation nerds floating about, but the only thing that I saw resembling that was an Asian guy with a big camera taking lots of pictures of our airplane from any angle he could. At least somebody else was appreciating the significance of this flight!

United Airlines 747–400 SFO
Such a beautiful airplane. Looks like N180UA will be doing the honors today, though I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t one of the aircraft with the special 747 Friend Ship titles on it. Oh well.
San Francisco international Airport international gate
Where’s all the balloons and cake? One hour until flight time, and the gate area looks as lively as it would be for a Southwest Airlines flight to Tulsa. Come on people, this is a special occasion!

Things were definitely starting to get more interesting in the minutes before boarding started. Everyone around me in the zone two boarding line seemed to be chattering about the 747 and reminiscing about their past experiences on this aircraft. That’s what I love about the 747 – everyone’s got a story to tell, and I’ve enjoyed hearing each and every one that I’ve heard so far.

Just hearing the stories, and knowing that I was about to get my first ride in the upper deck helped to make the experience all that much more exciting for me. I really can’t believe I’ve never been in the upper deck of a 747 before this flight, but I was super happy that I was able to do it on what would be my last ever United 747 experience. Or so I thought, but I’ll get to that in a moment…

Boarding United airlines 747 San Francisco airport
It’s happening! Thankfully I was in the company of several other AvGeeks in the moments before boarding.
747 jet bridge San Francisco international airport
747 747 747 oh boy oh boy oh boy! What you can’t see in this picture is my face trying really hard to look normal and not so excited about what is happening.
 United Airlines 747–400 boarding door
Savoring the moment of stepping onto (what I thought would be) my last ever United Airlines 747.
 United Airlines 747–400 lower level business class
Passing through business class on the lower level on my way to the iconic 747 stairway.
United airlines 747–400 stairs
There it is. THE staircase. Let’s do this.
Climbing United airlines 747 stairs
One of the best set of stairs I’ve ever climbed. Queue the angelic harp music now…
United Airlines 747–400 upper deck
So, this is the upper deck. Thankfully it was everything I had heard about and more. I can only imagine what my face looked like at this point, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a selfie to freeze this moment in time. On second thought, maybe not…

Being on the upper deck for the first time was a fun experience to say the least. I’ve seen pictures and I’ve heard stories, but I’ve never once been upstairs on the queen. It was awesome, and I’m sure that I looked like a total nerd as I was walking around checking everything out. At least the flight attendants were kind enough to put up with me, and even they were a bit sad that the 747 would be leaving the fleet soon.

United Airlines 747–400 upper deck business class seats
United Airlines 747–400 upper deck business class seats.
United airlines Polaris business class amenity
Placed on every seat was a comforter, pillow, blanket, and amenity kit. Noise canceling headsets were on the center console. Polaris business class is a nice step up from the old BusinessFirst product!
United Polaris business class chocolate
And a box of chocolates too. Thank god it wasn’t a Stroopwafel.
United Polaris business class Saks fifth avenue
A close-up shot of all that Polaris booty. Oooh, Saks Fifth Avenue stuff! Not that it really mattered to me today – it could have been stuff from a gas station convenience store and I would have been just as happy.
United airlines 747 upper deck business class
The view looking forward while seated. I’ll fully admit that this isn’t the best business class seat in the sky (it may be my least-favorite actually), but since I’m on a 747, I’ll give it a pass.
United airlines 747–400 business Class leg room
As you can see, legroom is perfectly fine, but there isn’t much privacy in these seats. It’s actually quite similar to Korean Air A380 business class.
United Airlines 747–400 business class seat controls
Seat controls for both you and your neighbor. You better hope the guy sitting next you is friendly, otherwise there’s a chance that he’s going to be messing with your seat all night.
United Airlines 747–400 business class entertainment system remote
Here’s the entertainment system remote – an old school classic, just like the 747.
United Polaris business class noise canceling headsets
Noise canceling headphones. I cannot wait until the stuff goes wireless!
United Airlines Polaris business glass slippers
Slippers. A bit thin, but very much appreciated.
United Airlines Polaris business class PowerPort
Power ports between the seats. This aircraft is a bit, shall we say “mature”, so I hope to god these things still work.
SANspotter selfie United 747-400
Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy! I’m such a nerd.

As best I could tell, it was probably a 60% to 40% ratio of passengers on the upper deck who were just normal travelers compared to others like me who were just here for the 747. The old Korean guy sitting next to me didn’t appear to care at all – of course he was really nice and friendly, but I don’t even think he knew (or cared) what this airplane was. Who knows? Maybe he did, but he certainly didn’t say anything about it.

United 747 farewell entertainment guide
I love the fact that United featured the history of the 747 in the entertainment guide this month.
United 747 farewell entertainment booklet
Final flight for an icon. Farewell United 747! Oh wait, please take me to Seoul first, then you can go…
United airlines 747–400 safety card
Feeling a wave of nostalgia come over me as I browse the safety card. Interesting that there is nothing about birdstrikes in here, which might have come in handy for this particular flight…

I wasn’t regretting my decision at all to forgo the video as we were pushing off the gate. I was on the upper deck of a 747, an airplane that would be gone from United fleet within two and a half weeks, on my way to one of my favorite cities in the world. I was quite enjoying myself thank you very much, and trying to get video of it all would’ve just diluted the experience.

United 747 pushback San Francisco international airport
Heeeere we go.
United Polaris business class menu
Let’s have a look at the menu as we make our way out of SFO. These new Polaris-branded menus look really sharp! Let’s hope the offerings on the inside are just as nice…
United Polaris business class food menu
All right, this looks pretty good. Certainly higher-quality food options compared to what I experienced in my first ever United 777-200 BusinessFirst experience two years ago.
United airlines Polaris business class wine and champagne
It’s kind of a shame that I didn’t raise my pinky for this pic. #missedopportunity
United Polaris business class drinks
If wine and champagne isn’t your thing, worry not. There are lots of other fine beverage choices here in Polaris business class.
United airlines 747-400 safety video
It’s not very often that I get to fly on a 747, so it was fun to watch this safety video. Wait, who am I kidding? I was so excited that I don’t remember a thing other than this one pic.
747–400 upper deck view
Such a commanding view from way up here!
747 versus regional jet size
Regional jets look especially tiny from the vantage point of a 747. We probably could’ve run over that little guy and not have felt a thing.
747 taxi at SFO
Various scenes from our taxi out to 28L.

Most other aircraft were departing off runway 1R today, but the big stuff like our 747 were sent to the 28’s. We had to wait for a moment for several other aircraft arrive but once it was clear we pushed onto 28L and took off to the north just west of the city.

United Airlines 747 take off from San Francisco international airport
Blasting out of SFO! Little did I know that we had just struck a flock of birds. Oddly enough, I didn’t hear or feel anything.

Just like I normally do on take off, I had my iPhone to the window taking pics of the entire process. There was actually one point during our take off roll (just as we lifted off) when my screen flickered black for a split second, and I actually thought that something had flown in front of the window – but I wasn’t really sure what it was.

It all happened so fast, and I wasn’t really sure what I saw (if I even saw anything), so I didn’t dwell on it and just returned my focus to the takeoff process since everything else seemed to be normal.

Taking off from San Francisco united 747
Climbing away from the city, and everything seems normal. That’s probably a good thing, because blood and feathers splattered all over my window wouldn’t have made me feel very comfortable I think.

I was in total AvGeek mode for the first 10 minutes of light, totally engrossed with the 747 takeoff experience. The sights, sounds…there’s nothing quite like lifting off the runway and climbing to the skies on a Boeing 747. Especially from the upper deck!

United Airlines 747-400 wing
What a view! Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and…

Unfortunately, being numb to everything around me caused me to completely miss the fact that we leveled off at 10,000 feet and held there for 10 minutes. It was then that the captain made an announcement stating that we struck a flock of birds on take off, which damaged the airspeed sensor and that our only choice was to dump fuel and return to SFO.

He sounded very frustrated and dejected by that, probably more so than anyone else in the cabin. Of course there were a lot of disappointed looking faces seated around me (including mine), but the good news was that there didn’t seem to be any significant damage to the aircraft and we would be OK to circle for a bit before returning.

But still. Having to circle for 45 minutes to an hour just to dump fuel before returning to the airport was frustrating for all.

United Airlines 747 upper deck interior
OK, well this isn’t good. Time to dump fuel and head back to SFO.

The funny thing about that announcement was when the cabin crew had to make a translated announcement in Korean. One of the flight attendants made a big mistake by holding a hot mic (the microphone was on and he didn’t realize it) while discussing with other flight attendants how to tell other passengers what had happened.

“You can’t say that birds flew into the engines because that will scare everyone…” one said to another. There were some other things said that I couldn’t quite understand, but that first sentence said it all and everyone looked at each other with big eyes thinking “holy shit!” while trying not to burst out laughing.

Dumping fuel over Northern California
I’m actually surprised that we stayed over land while dumping fuel – I know the stuff evaporates as it’s dispersed, but the amount of fuel we dumped in such a small area wasn’t insignificant.
747-400 dumping fuel
If you look closely, you can see fuel being dumped from a nozzle at the end of the wing. I can’t help to wonder how much money it cost to dump that much fuel – not only in fuel costs, but in fines from regulatory agencies such as the EPA as well.

Here’s a short video clip of the fuel dump, just in case you ever wondered what hundreds of thousands of dollars evaporating into thin air actually sounds like:

I had a nearly 5 hour layover at ICN scheduled before my flight down to Hong Kong, but I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen and how long it would take to fix this aircraft and get it up in the air again. Heck, would they even be able to fix it? There were many unknowns as we circled just north of San Francisco dumping fuel, and nobody knew anything, so all we could do is just wait and see what happened…

The flight attendants came around and served warm nuts as we were doing laps in the sky, but to be honest I wasn’t really in the mood to be wined and dined quite yet. All I wanted to do was to figure out when I would be arriving in Seoul so that I could make appropriate accommodations to get down to Hong Kong.

Of course I couldn’t do anything while sitting there on the airplane, so I just tried as best I could to shrug it off and enjoy flying around in circles on the queen of the skies.

Warm nuts United airlines Polaris business class
Warm nuts and a whole heck of a lot of uncertainty about the rest of my trip.

It took about an hour and 10 minutes to dump enough fuel to lower our weight enough so that we could land, and we arrived back at SFO to the exact same gate that we departed from just an hour and a half earlier.

United Airlines 747–400 San Francisco approach
Sigh. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in all the world, but I was in no mood to see it again today.
Landing at SFO in a United airlines 747
I’ve got to admit that it was hard not to think about really big birds (other than this 747) during the approach.
747 landing SFO
Welcome back to San Francisco. What’s next, nobody knows…
Pulling up to the gate United airlines 747 San Francisco international Airport
Pulling back into the gate where we started from just two hours earlier.

Once docked, they had everyone remain on board while the ground staff assessed the situation and figured out a plan. 15 minutes later, they told us that there would be an aircraft swap to another 747 departing in two hours. Oy vey. My connection down to Hong Kong on that Asiana 747 was not looking likely at this point. But hey – at least they got another 747 for us for the ride to Seoul, so there was no chance of missing out on that experience.

United airlines 747 bird strike
Damn! Imagine being a bird just flying along happily without a care in the world, and all of a sudden a 747 comes out of nowhere and hits you like…well, a 747. Big thanks to one of the flight attendants for getting this shot after we landed.
United airlines 747 birdstrike damage
By the way, once I arrived in Hong Kong, I noticed that @theflyinghouse posted some better pictures of the damage on Instagram. With the retirement of the 747 just 2 1/2 weeks away at that point, I’m wondering if they just threw in the towel on this one and sent her off to the desert early.

There were a lot of long-looking faces as we were deplaning, but at that point I was starting to think proactively and wasted no time rushing down to the customer service desk – if only to try and secure a spot on a later flight if by chance I miss my original connection at ICN. Thankfully they were able to secure me a seat on the last departure to HKG that evening, just in case.

Despite the frustration of what had just happened, I can now say that I feel somewhat proud to have experienced my first ever birdstrike and fuel dump. These are not things that I have been wishing to experience, but now that they’ve happened I feel like a more experienced air traveler. I wish never to go through it again though – once is enough, thank you very much.

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